1994 Republican Rout Is Casting Shadow in 2010
The year was 1994. Congressional Democrats were battered after a failed fight to pass a health care bill. It was the first midterm election for a new Democratic president, Bill Clinton. By overwhelming numbers, Americans thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, had unfavorable views of the president and Congress, and said it was time for new leadership in Washington.
That fall, Republicans swept to power, capturing 9 seats in the Senate and 52 in the House.
In many ways, the 1994 election has become the template both Republicans and Democrats are looking to as they set their strategies for the fall Congressional elections. Democratic campaign operatives, who are girding for big losses, began meeting quietly with party strategists involved in the 1994 contests last summer, looking for lessons on how to avoid another rout.
Yet 1994 seems an imprecise way to predict how this contest will play out. While there are intriguing parallels, there are some important differences as well. And though Democrats might look to those differences as glimmers of light — “There are so many things different from ’94 that I think this will turn out very differently,” said Stanley Greenberg, who was the White House pollster in 1994 — the divergences seem as likely to benefit Republicans as Democrats, analysts in both parties said.
Further, it seems too early to measure the effect of what is perhaps the biggest difference between the two cycles — that Democrats this time succeeded in passing a major health care bill.
For Democrats, the biggest obstacle appears to be that they are once again working in the kind of environment that has historically proved toxic to the party in power. Mr. Obama’s favorability ratings, like Mr. Clinton’s in 1994, have slipped below 50 percent, almost invariably a bad harbinger for the party in power in midterm elections. Congress and the Democratic Party are today extremely unpopular, as they were in 1994.
[I]n some ways, Republicans seem even better positioned than they were in 1994. Republican voters appear highly energized by the health care bill, and that kind of voter interest typically results in significant turnout in a midterm election.
Many experts have predicted big gains for Republicans — even some Democrats say Republicans might win 40 seats and thus control of the House — making it easier for the Republican Party to recruit candidates who might otherwise have stood aside. It could also make it easier for the party to raise money and enliven supporters.
In 1994, Democrats had 28 retirements, putting many districts on the table that otherwise would have been safe. Last week, Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan announced that he would not seek re-election, pushing the number of Democrats who are retiring this year to 20, equal to the number of Republicans who are retiring. The number is still relatively low, though not as low as Democrats would have liked.